Our 2019 Tribute in Light Bird Monitoring

Each year on the evening of September 11th, New York City Audubon staff, board members, and volunteers make their way to the Battery Parking Garage in lower Manhattan, where 88 high-powered spotlights are assembled on top of its roof to create the Tribute in Light Memorial. Throughout the night our team of community science volunteers keep watch, methodically counting the number of birds in the light beams every 20 minutes from 8 p.m. on September 11th to 6 a.m. on September 12th.

Our agreement with partners National September 11 Memorial & Museum and Michael Ahern Production Services calls for the lights to be turned off when necessary to allow migratory birds that are disoriented in the beams to disperse. (Learn how artificial light from the Tribute in Light affects nocturnally migrating birds in this Audubon Magazine article here). As always, we were joined by Dr. Andrew Farnsworth’s BirdCast team, who kept us informed of bird migrations throughout New York City and the surrounding area.

Our protocol is to ask that the lights be turned off if a critical mass of birds (over 1,000) is counted circling in the beams at one time, or if birds are observed circling and calling low in the beams. The Tribute in Light organizers and production team are always respectful of our requests, and we cannot thank them enough for continuing to work with us to ensure the Tribute in Light is safe for our nocturnally migrating birds.

This year’s Tribute in Light monitoring began with very light bird migration. Our volunteers saw very few birds circling in the lights, with the notable exception of an opportunistic Peregrine Falcon hunting for potential easy meals, first spotted around 8:30 p.m. We remained optimistic for a light migration as the night continued. We observed a few birds, such as a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, moving quickly through the lights and continuing on its flight. We also watched Eastern Red Bats and Silver-haired Bats forage in the lights.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">So far been a quiet night for birds at the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/tributeinlight?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#tributeinlight</a>. Great news! Things can always change, though, over the course of the long night, so our dedicated volunteers will continue to closely monitor the tribute until dawn to make sure our nocturnally migrating birds are safe! <a href="https://t.co/r27vMzjh43">pic.twitter.com/r27vMzjh43</a></p>&mdash; NYC Audubon (@NYCAudubon) <a href="https://twitter.com/NYCAudubon/status/1171988844666871808?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">September 12, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
The low bird activity at the Tribute, unfortunately, did not persist as the evening wore on. Migration density quickly increased shortly after 3 a.m. Tribute in Light Volunteer Doug Gochfeld reported on eBird that he observed three Ovenbirds, six Black-and-white Warblers, and thirty American Redstarts, among other species, at the Tribute during this time. As the number of birds circling in the beams increased, our team agreed that the lights should be turned off for a brief period.   
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-dnt="true"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">The <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TributeinLight?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TributeinLight</a> organizers have agreed to turn off the lights for 15 minutes to allow a high quantity of birds caught in the lights to disperse and continue safely on their migration. Thank you to the Tribute for working with us once again to make tonight safer for birds! <a href="https://t.co/uk90OyyVL9">pic.twitter.com/uk90OyyVL9</a></p>&mdash; NYC Audubon (@NYCAudubon) <a href="https://twitter.com/NYCAudubon/status/1172052156523982848?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">September 12, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
The lights were turned off by Michael Ahern Production Services from 3:30 a.m to nearly 4 a.m. to allow the circling birds to disperse. Upon relighting, the birds quickly returned and the lights were turned off again from 4:22 a.m to 4:55 a.m.   After the lights were turned back on, a new pulse of birds began to congregate in the beams, albeit in smaller numbers, until daylight broke shortly after 6 a.m. Gochfeld reported on eBird seeing Prairie Warblers, Northern Parulas, Blackburnian Warblers, and other songbirds traveling through the Tribute shortly after 5 a.m. Additionally, two Peregrine Falcons came and lingered around the beams to take advantage of the lights and pick off an easy breakfast.
Radar map shows a high density of birds (indicated by green and yellow areas) over the Tribute in Light at 4:15 a.m., just before we asked the lights be turned off at 4:20 a.m.

See all the species at the Tribute this year that were reported on eBird here. To learn more about the work NYC Audubon does to protect migrating birds, visit our Project Safe Flight page. New York City Audubon’s Project Safe Flight program is made possible by the leadership support from the Leon Levy Foundation and the Robert F. Schumann Foundation.

-Kaitlyn Parkins, NYC Audubon Conservation Biologist